The £179/$179 Sonos One, the first Sonos smart speaker, was launched amid a mass of brand new clever speakers, as Apple, Amazon, Google and more all got in one the AI action.
But these were all speakers made by companies that are smart, but not first and foremost experts in audio. That’s why, for hi-fi fans, the more recent trend for audio companies licensing smart technology is much more interesting.
The Sonos One is essentially a Play:1 with Amazon Alexa (and now Google Assistant) built-in, and that’s a winning combination in our book.
In terms of shape and size, the One's looks are practically identical to those of the Play:1. The only significant aesthetic departure is the replacement of the Play:1’s grey wraparound grille with a black or white grille, depending on the colour of speaker you’ve chosen.
Overall, the One blends into its surroundings even more effectively than its predecessor.
Things have changed on the top plate, where the three buttons of the Play:1 have been replaced by a touch-sensitive panel decorated with a circle of tiny, white LEDs and symbols.
These represent play/pause, the microphone and Sonos’s now-familiar context-sensitive actions, while the white LEDs illustrate whether voice control is switched on.
Sonos is keen to point out that switching voice control off is a matter of tapping the microphone symbol, and your total privacy is represented by the lights being off altogether.
Unlike the Play:1, the One also gets a dedicated Pairing button, just above the ethernet socket.
You no longer need to have one of your Sonos units wired into your router, although we’d still recommend using cables for the most stable and reliable connection. Sonos’s wireless network is one of the best around, so you are unlikely to encounter too many issues with the wi-fi route.
Although you can switch Alexa and the Google Assistant off entirely, it’s often worth having them listening, particularly as they're more deeply integrated here than with many rivals.
Alexa is particularly well implemented, in that you can talk to the One exactly as you would Amazon’s own Echo, so instead of having to say “Alexa, play Bowie on Sonos”, you simply say “Alexa, play Bowie”, and one of his classics will spring forth from your One. That might sound like a small detail but, in terms of regular interaction, it’s a big difference.
If you want to voice-control music in other rooms, specify where (eg. “Alexa, play Bowie in the lounge”) and the One will send music to the Sonos kit you’ve ascribed to that ‘zone’ – even a non-Alexa-enabled Sonos speaker, such as a PlayBar or Play:5. “Alexa, play Bowie everywhere” sets all your Sonos speakers to synchronised Ziggy Stardust mode.
If you’re worried that having Dancing In The Street blaring from your One will prevent Alexa or the Google Assistant from hearing your request to skip Dancing In The Street, a combination of noise cancelling, something called “smart voice capture” and a custom-designed six-microphone array ensures that you can always be heard.
The Sonos One launched only supporting Amazon Music but has now added Spotify, Deezer, TuneIn and Audible voice control into the mix, which is very welcome.
Of course, you can also use Alexa or Google Assistant on the One exactly as you do on an Amazon Echo or Google Home, so as well as playing music you can set timers and alarms, check the weather, add items to your shopping list – all small features, but useful nonetheless. We’d suggest the One is particularly good as a kitchen speaker.
We have loud music playing from the One in the kitchen and can still get Alexa’s attention from the adjoining room with only a slightly raised voice.
You know when your chosen voice assistant has heard you, too, as any mention of her name is met with a chime of acknowledgement, signalling that you can continue your request. That might make the experience sound disjointed, but it’s quick and natural.
With an Echo Dot you look for a visual clue that Alexa is listening. The One’s chime is quicker and more in keeping with audio communication, so it leads to more natural-feeling interactions.
The quality of the microphones make the One less likely to mis-hear your requests and instructions – we find it makes fewer mistakes than our Echo Dot. Correctly hearing the request is only half the battle, though, and Alexa is still capable of misunderstanding.
The most common issue is when you say, for example, “play Ladytron”, and she instead starts playing a song with those words in the title. That can be annoying at first, but you can avoid that by saying “play some music by Ladytron” instead.
It's worth remembering that, while voice control is obviously the big headline for the One, you can of course still use it as you would any other Sonos speaker. Sonos's own app remains the best in the business for its usability and for bringing practically every streaming service (and your own stored tunes) together under one roof, and the recent addition of AirPlay 2 means Apple device users can send audio from almost any app they use. Spotify Connect is on board, too.
You may find references to Gen 1 and Gen 2 versions of the Sonos One. The Gen 2 gets an upgraded processor, more memory and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), but both models apparently perform and sound identical. In time, only the Gen 2 will be available, but you might be able to find a Gen 1 at a lower price (£179) while stocks last).
When we first heard the One at the launch event, we suspected it was a slight sonic upgrade on the Play:1 but, having listened to both in our testing rooms, the two speakers sound pretty much identical.
That’s no bad thing, though, because the Play:1 was already near the top of the sonic charts for wireless speakers at this price point.
We’d recommend going to the effort of TruePlay tuning the One with an iPhone (if you have one), as it opens the sound up. We prefer the sound with the Loudness setting left on, but experiment to discover which combination works best for you and your room.
We set it up the way we like, and get a delivery that’s weighty, full-bodied and loud – not traits you’d generally expect from a wireless speaker of this size. The soundstage is spacious and impressively organised, with vocals given plenty of breathing room, making them instantly more engaging.
That’s not to say that instruments are left out – they emerge in an impressively stereo-like way from either side of the singer. It’s rather sophisticated and natural in that regard.
The One’s weight makes for deep, solid bass for a speaker this size, and there’s enough rhythm to just about keep up with Trivium’s Pull Harder On The Strings Of Your Martyr, and enough tonal shading to make the most of Flea’s finest Red Hot Chili Peppers basslines.
Treble is crisp and clear, but treads a fine line between excitement and harshness. You’ll occasionally notice the odd sharp edge or hint of sibilance, but it’s not enough to be bothersome. More often, it’s simply clear and sparkly.
As with the Play:1, two Sonos Ones can be combined to create a stereo pair capable of filling a room with hi-fi-like focus, and for £400 that would be quite an accomplished little system.
Given the sonic similarities, it’s a shame you can’t form a stereo pair consisting of one One and one Play:1. Buying two Alexa-powered speakers for one room just feels like overkill, particularly if you already have a Play:1.
Unsurprisingly, you can also use the One as a surround speaker for a Sonos Beam, PlayBase or PlayBar-based system, with or without a subwoofer. The new Sonos Amp also allows you to create a 4.1 system, with a phantom centre channel, from a pair of wired front speakers and a pair of Ones acting as surrounds.
The One isn’t the only way to add voice Alexa to a Sonos system – you can add an Echo or Echo Dot to your multi-room system, which brings with it the ability to send music to your Sonos speakers.
That’s not as neat, though, as you need to specify which room or speaker you want to listen on. A system comprised of Sonos Ones, on the other hand, will respond based on proximity – unless you instruct otherwise.
The combination of the Sonos Play:1’s audio talents and Alexa’s usefulness and intelligence is a real winner, particularly as the One costs broadly the same as its predecessor.
After ironing out some of the initial software bugs, and adding features such as Alexa control of Spotify and AirPlay 2, the Sonos One cements its place as one of the best £200 smart speakers on the market.
If you don't value the voice assistant you may be happy with an original Play:1 (which is still available and now cheaper) and there's now also the Beam speaker to consider, but for compact convenience and quality, the Sonos One still comes highly recommended.